By Simon Le Blond
So this is sermon number four, the last in our series on the Great Commandment, “To love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind”. We’ve looked at all the others, this week it’s time to concentrate on the last of these: loving God with all our minds.
Firstly, some context on today’s reading.
1 Corinthians is Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth. Corinth was one of the major cities in Greece on the narrow isthmus that separates the North of Greece’s mainland from the South. We hear about Paul’s visit to Corinth in Acts 18: he meets the tentmaking couple Aquilla and Priscilla and he ends up staying with them for a year and half, probably around AD 50. This letter was written while Paul is in Ephesus, some three years later. Paul is responding to reports from “Chloe’s household” that the Church in Corinth is experiencing some teething problems. In a nutshell, the epistle is Paul’s attempt to correct certain views, behaviours and divisions in the young church: to “admonish” the new believers and put them on the straight and narrow.
This section, 1 Corinthians, 2 1:16, directly follows Paul’s opening greetings. Its purpose is to establish Paul’s credentials and authority. Paul doesn’t draw on his worldly skills or wisdom to do this, despite being an educated man. We know Paul was a Pharisee and had scholarly wisdom, much more so than most of the disciples, many of whom were simple fisherman. Paul does not shout up his own personal skills – far from it. He says “I came to you in weakness with fear and trembling…”. Remember he’s already had a tough time spreading the gospel, narrowly escaping martyrdom on more than one occasion, so no wonder he approached Corinth with fear and trembling! Also, he shows genuine humility in his letters. For example, in 2 Corinthians 10: he acknowledges his own weakness at public speaking, he writes about himself:
“For some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.”
So Paul does not consider himself a great orator, a skill which was highly prized in ancient Hellenistic culture. He doesn’t have the swagger of the salesman, in modern day parlance, he is not trying to be a persuasive, slippery “sales weasel”. Instead, he comes armed with something far more compelling: the truth, and God’s power and spirit. In these opening verses Paul establishes himself as an ambassador for Christ. He writes
“When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”
Paul’s main point here is that human wisdom is always limited, but God’s wisdom is absolute. So any shortcomings of the messenger do not detract from the message. It is only because Paul is relying on God’s wisdom, rather than his own, that he has authority to minister to the church in Corinth.
Limited and fallible our own human wisdom may be, the title of this sermon is nonetheless about how we can love God with all our minds, as we are commanded to.
Well what do we understand to be our minds? This seems like a straightforward question at first. But if you ask the same thing of a neuroscientist, a philosopher and a Buddhist you are likely to get three very different answers! Science broadly accepts that our thinking goes on inside our brain, the hub of neurons and synaptic connections inside our heads that is the centre of a wider nervous system running throughout our bodies. It’s widely accepted that our thoughts, emotions, language, sensations and personalities are stored and run on this biological hardware. The human brain contains about 1011 neurons, that’s a hundred billion – roughly ten times the present number of people on the planet. This makes the human brain arguably the most complex single interconnected system in the known universe.
Yet we still ask ourselves, the fascinating question, does the mind exist beyond this small volume of grey matter? Does our consciousness inhabit some other uncharted physical dimension? As Christians we believe that we will live on after our earthly bodies have expired. But how and when God orchestrates this transfer of information is still a complete mystery to us.
For the past 70 years or so we have been taking inspiration from creation to build virtual “brains” within a branch of computer science called Artificial Neural Networks. When I was using neural networks in power systems about 10 years ago, we were only building architectures of about 50 or so neurons. Now Google and other tech giants are building ANNs using supercomputers with up to 16 million neurons, about the size of a frog’s brain. But there the analogy with nature ends: these state of the art artificial networks take days to train with incredible amounts of data to only achieve very specific tasks, whilst a frog can survive and reproduce, mastering its environment in real time. Whilst this is the best we can do for the moment, if trends continue, at some point in the future, technologies like this may answer questions about the nature of consciousness and it will then be interesting to see how our faith is challenged or strengthened. It might be prudent to consider these issues for yourself beforehand in case they come to the fore sooner rather than later.
I recently read Machines like me by Ian McEwan. The novel is set in an alternative version of the 1980s where the revolutionary computer scientist Alan Turing hasn’t taken his own life in 1954. In this alternative past, Turing goes on to accelerate development of Artificial Intelligence, and the advent of strong AI makes synthetic humans possible by the 80s. The protagonist buys a male version from the first run of these androids, conspicuously named Adam. Despite the main character’s scepticism, Adam begins to exhibit signs of emotion, character and humanity. Is Adam truly conscious? Does he have a mind? There is no religious dimension to the book, but as I was reading, I wondered if we ever create synthetic humans, will they have a right to believe, to faith, to enter into a relationship with God? In the BBC sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf, AI in future is programmed to believe in Silicon Heaven, an afterlife for all electronic and electrical devices. When Kryten the Mechanoid is prompted to question his programmed faith, he exclaims “No silicon heaven!? but where do all the calculators go?”
But do the physical nuts and bolts of our minds really matter as far as our relationship with God goes? We know we are conscious because, well, “I think therefore I am” as Descarte put it. So we know the existence of our minds and our of own consciousness experientially, even if we don’t understand the underlying hardware and software.
We have some control of our minds, more so than our feelings and our emotions, – we are able to follow trains of thought and focus them to achieve complex outcomes. If you’re anything like me, you may sometimes struggle to manage your thought processes. But to some extent we do have a conscious choice about what we think about. This brings me to revisit something I said last time I preached, and also that others have pointed out in this series, Love is a choice. Being in control of our our minds allows us to exercise that choice. Whilst we may not be masters of our emotions at times, with our minds we can still choose to love our Creator, and act out that love, even at times when our feelings may be conflicted. A caveat here is that we can’t actually be thinking about God 24/7 and with all our minds - it’s impossible, and it would be unhealthy in our earthly human lives to take this literally. I think one Jesus’s reasons for citing this commandment above all others to the Pharisees in Matthew 22, is to impress on them how all humans inherently fall short of the law, and therefore why we need his salvation.
If we are commanded to use our minds to love God, we need to keep our minds healthy to do this. This includes the physical: getting good sleep, getting enough exercise and eating healthily. It includes good mental hygiene: a balanced social life, consuming the right media, including social media, being kind to oneself without being lazy, and keeping the mind active and engaged. But of course, all things in moderation here – it’s unhealthy to become obsessive about any one of these. And even moderation is best practiced in moderation!
Evidently human minds are capable of some very impressive feats. The mind is like a sharp knife, when wielded with careful skill it can achieve great things, but it can also be extremely dangerous. I know what it’s like to not be in control of your mind. Last autumn I was in hospital for a major operation, but denied of privacy, dignity, sleep and being in a huge amount of pain caused me to literally lose my mind for several weeks. From my hospital room I drifted in and out of all kinds of paranoid fantasies, a bizarre mash-up of Philip K. Dick, John le Carré, Ian M. Banks and amateur theology. I found hidden messages in my bible, for example thinking the churches of Bradford on Avon were the churches in Paul’s letters. At one point I was convinced I was an AI in a computer simulation in the distant future. I wonder if I would have fared better if I hadn’t read so many sci-fi and espionage novels!? Experiences like this have led me to believe sleep is hugely important, after enough sleep deprivation your body is forced to dream while you are awake and you enter psychosis, the waking dream state. We need to look after our minds.
One of the wisest characters in the Bible is Solomon the son of David. When he becomes King, God comes to Solomon in a dream and asks him what he desires. God is pleased when Solomon asks for wisdom to rule rather than anything overtly selfish. God grants him great wisdom and his reign is one of the most successful in the biblical history of Israel. Yet in the melancholy book of Ecclesiastes, traditionally attributed to Solomon, the author declares:
"I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.
For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more knowledge, the more grief."
So yes, thinking is important, but it is possible to think too much. Trying to work life and God out with logical reasoning can be counterproductive. The longer you are on your Christian journey, the more likely you are to come up against unexplainable paradoxes, challenges to your faith, often caused by suffering and loss, perhaps unanswered prayers. Whilst I used to think I partly understood God’s reasons for suffering, I have been increasingly uncertain and my response now has been to consign these things to the box labelled great mysteries – accepting that these are things that I’ll probably never understand. Strangely, I think this acceptance had brought me more peace. It might be a platitude, but it is no less true to say that if we could explain life’s mysteries, our lives would quickly become stale as we mechanically acted out the inevitable.
Another potential pitfall of too much wisdom can be pride. As C.S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity:
“As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see something that is above you.”
Worldly wisdom is nothing in comparison to God’s wisdom. You don’t need worldly wisdom to wield the power of God’s spirit. For example, in Acts 4, Peter and John demonstrate the power of the Spirit in bestowing God’s wisdom, as they confidently justify healing in the name of Jesus to the Sanhedrin. Acts 4:13:
“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.”
So God’s wisdom is the great equaliser. There may be a dichotomy here, whilst we need to use our minds as best we can to love and serve God, there is a danger of becoming too cerebral about our faith. The central message of Christianity is simple enough for young children to understand, and moreover, Jesus said you need to become like little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We need to rely on the wisdom of God as Paul did: 1 Corithians 1.
“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
Returning to today’s reading, Paul leaves us with another paradox:
The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for,
“Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”
But we have the mind of Christ.
In other words, whilst we can’t know God’s mind, we can strive to cultivate a mind like Christ’s, in the sense to think more like him, exercising Jesus’ compassion, gentleness, wisdom and of course love. In doing this we become more Christ-like, and this itself is a loving act, showing God how invested we are in Him. As it is often said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”!
A few days ago, we sadly lost our dear friend John Glanville. I believe John was a great pillar of inspiration to everyone at Bearfield and he certainly was to me. John faced so many health challenges in life, but what was exceptional to me was the way he responded with so much dignity, patience and humility. Despite losing his sight, and later his hearing, John maintained his active mind right up to the end of his life. He loved to sail with his family, feeling the motion of the waves and the billowing sea breeze and the reward of a decent real ale once in port. He had a keen interest in, and a real flair for, technology. I remember John’s son, and my close friend, Luke, relating how when John was locked out one day, he somehow managed to fish the solar panel out of the garage and wire it up to an old radio. Sue had come back to find him relaxing in the garden listening to the cricket! But despite his technical acumen, John’s faith always came first. His preaching was not verbose, cerebral and aloof, it was measured, authentic and heartfelt. John didn’t have the personal pride C.S. Lewis warns us against, he approached God as his spiritual child. Like Paul, John relied on God’s wisdom and power rather than his own, and his anchor held fast in the storm. He was a man who understood better than most how to love God with all his mind. We will miss him very much.